JABALIYA, Gaza Strip — In a small town in the northern Gaza Strip, a group of children sat on a circle of small chairs in front of a minibus, listening raptly to a storyteller. The bus had been turned into a mobile library to bring books into areas where there are none.
The mobile library’s coordinator, Mahmoud Askalani, told Al-Monitor that Ramallah’s French-German Cultural Center sent the bookmobile to Gaza on May 16. Its route takes it to marginalized areas and towns with no public libraries on a mission to encourage children to read. The bookmobile is expected to return to the West Bank by the end of August after completing its three-month tour. The mobile library, the first of its kind in the Gaza Strip, has already visited 40 neighborhoods across Gaza this year, targeting children under 14. This is the bookmobile's second trip across the Gaza Strip. Its first visit was in the summer of 2015.
Aya al-Ajrami, 11, from Jabaliya, told Al-Monitor she was extremely pleased with the bookmobile’s visit to her hometown, adding that she had never been to a public library before. Aya’s father, Raed al-Ajrami, who accompanied his daughter to the mobile library, said though he has always told her bedtime stories, this was Aya's first chance to actually hold a storybook in her hands and read it herself.
After finishing his story, the storyteller allows children to go up to the library and choose a book to read. Since the bookmobile visits each place only once, the children cannot borrow the books and take them home.
Aseel Hajjaj decided to take her young son Raed, 5, to read him stories. She told Al-Monitor, “My son has not yet learned how to read, but he likes listening to stories.” Hajjaj expressed sadness at the lack of children’s facilities in Gaza.
The story Hajjaj chose for her son held special meaning for the Palestinian situation. The book tells the story of a fox that destroyed the house of a rabbit it was hunting. The rabbit turned to the lion for help, but the lion also tried to devour the small animal. The rabbit was able to escape again and asked for help from the bear, who also tried to feast on the rabbit. The rabbit got the same response from the tiger and the elephant. Finally, the rabbit decided that the only solution was for all the rabbits to unite against the fox and defeat the predator. The moral of this story is that Palestinians need to be united and achieve national reconciliation in order to confront Israel's occupation.
As for Mohammad Abu Warda, 13, he wishes there were a permanent library in his town, so he could visit it and borrow books. He told Al-Monitor that no one cares about building libraries there.
Askalani told Al-Monitor, “The bookmobile is equipped with tables and seats, and is accompanied by a storyteller whose job is to tell children stories.” He said that the library contains over 200 titles, and children are allowed to go in and choose any they like to enjoy during the minibus' stop. However, each visit lasts only an hour, and then the bookmobile leaves for another place to reach the largest possible number of children across Gaza.
The idea, said Askalani, was met with great enthusiasm from both children and parents who ask for more visits.
With a population of 2 million in an area of 365 square kilometers (227 miles), the Gaza Strip contains just 15 public libraries, according to the general manager of exhibitions and libraries at the Ministry of Culture, Mohammad al-Sharif.
Sharif told Al-Monitor, “The shortage of libraries is due to the lack of space. Ideally, each municipality should have a public library. But there is rarely any space available for a library in municipal buildings. This is why residents of many areas don’t have access to libraries close to their homes.”
Religious institutions in Gaza often provide small libraries for visitors, usually at the ground floor of mosques. But most of the books there are religious, and literary and scientific books are scarce. These libraries are not usually inviting places to sit and read, but more often simply book storage areas.
The book collection at the Brighter Tomorrow Cultural Center is the only such facility in Jabaliya, which stretches over an area of 18 square kilometers (11 square miles), with 220,000 residents. Asma Hammouda, a librarian there, said that the library was established through the Young Women’s Muslim Association, a civil institution in Gaza, in January. It's very small, with an inventory of approximately 600 books.
“At best, only 20 children visit the library per day. Sometimes, we have no visitors because parents and children don’t know about the library,” she added.
Visitors to this library will readily notice its focus on religious content. The religion section is piled high with books, but other topics like literature, science and art take up very little space. Only 10 books make up the literature section.
Asked about why the library is rich with religious books at the expense of scientific and literature books, Hammouda said, “This is not intentional at all. The presence of a large number of religious books compared to other books is because the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs has sent us a great deal to be included. At present, work is underway to provide more books for the scientific and literature sections.”
Faced with a moribund cultural scene in the Gaza Strip and an acute shortage of public libraries, Jabaliya's children will have to wait for next year to revisit Gaza’s mobile library and read the storybooks they like.
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